Position Statement on Physician Assistants

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1 Position Statement on Physician Assistants Team-based models of medical care that are characterised by responsiveness to local needs, mutual reliance and flexibility have always been a part of rural and remote medicine. The College recognises that this often occurs within what might formally be described as a delegated practice framework locally-negotiated and flexible arrangements for clinical task allocation and supervision within a health care team that accommodate the evolving clinical abilities of members. The College recognises that the meeting the future health care needs of communities require ongoing innovation in approaches to health service delivery and health workforce. Much of the innovation will come from rural and remote areas. The College supports the further development of delegated practice models for doctors working with other health care personnel and learners. Delegation strategies in clinical governance complement, rather than replace, stand-alone extension training approaches that are normally tied to a discrete clinical role expansion within an established professional group. Health care of the future requires participation of many more workers at all levels delegated and stand-alone - and no one health workforce innovation holds the answer. The College therefore supports the sensible further development of models of clinical practice and training for mid-level health care personnel, including an Australian adaptation of the US Physician Assistant (PA) role, so as to extend the reach of doctors in rural and remote communities and stabilise health care services. The College therefore: acknowledges that the Physician Assistant model represents an extension of informal delegated medical practice arrangements that already exist in rural and remote Australia, strengthened by formal vocational training and a local clinical governance framework; recognises that Physician Assistants, under the direction and supervision of doctors, are part of a broader range of solutions for increasing participation in health care to meet the needs of communities; Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, October

2 recommends broader adoption of clinical governance frameworks that support local delegated medical practice in determining appropriate clinical roles and supervision within a health care team, enabling Physician Assistants (and others) to work to the full extent of their evolving abilities with the support of medical practitioners; notes that an Australian Physician Assistant training pathway represents a route into expanded, flexible, clinical careers for interested paramedics, allied health practitioners, nurses, Aboriginal Health Workers and military medics who might otherwise be lost to the health care system; supports a model of accredited tertiary educational programs for Physician Assistants in the interest of standardisation, quality assurance and professional credibility, ideally housed within medical schools; acknowledges in the context of the more than doubling of medical student numbers, that clinical training is under pressure and that while Physician Assistants can assist in the supervision and teaching of medical students and junior doctors, the demands on clinical placements and training opportunities must be managed; expects national registration for Physician Assistants through the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA); and welcomes the participation of Physician Assistants in ACRRM-accredited continuing medical education courses. Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, October

3 Background to College Position Statement Precedent for Delegated Medical Practice in Australia Rural and remote medical practice in Australia has established traditions of teambased health care, including flexible delegation of clinical tasks by rural doctors to nurses, Aboriginal health workers, allied health practitioners, paramedics, lay health care assistants and others. This is a sensible adaptation to workforce shortage and geography and has helped to ensure that the evolving abilities of all members of a health care team can be fully applied. In most cases, these are informal, locally negotiated arrangements, often supported by common clinical care protocols and models that support team-based care. Team-based flexibility around clinical roles is increasingly under pressure in Australia, particularly in the public sector. The trend is for more bureaucracy and mandatory credentials - and this has paralleled the emergence of profession-specific, advanced practice extension training. The introduction of Physician Assistants (PAs) will help to balance these developments and ensure that the doctor can continue to contribute medical leadership and support within health care teams in a flexible way. In the US, Physician Assistants are well established members of medical teams and are a well-developed example of medical task delegation. Physician Assistant Facts The Physician Assistant profession is a medical extension officer model that emerged in the United States during the 1960s in response to the lack of access to primary care services, particularly by poor, rural and minority populations. According to the peak professional body, the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), Physician Assistants are: health professionals who practice medicine as members of a team with their supervising physicians. PAs deliver a broad range of medical and surgical services to diverse populations in rural and urban settings. As part of their comprehensive responsibilities, PAs conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery, and prescribe medications. There are over 80,000 PAs licensed to practice in the US across all 50 states and the profession is very popular. The great majority of states apply practical regulatory frameworks that allow supervising physicians to delegate any task within their own scope of practice, providing the PA has had the appropriate training and has demonstrated abilities. This allows for flexible, locally negotiated and evolving scope of practice and autonomy within the PA-doctor relationship. Supervision does not necessarily require the physical presence of a physician at the place where services Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, October

4 are rendered - providing an added benefit in rural and remote practice. Education in the US consists of a condensed and accelerated generalist medical paradigm. Graduates must be nationally board certified to qualify for state registration. There have been a number of phases of PA recruitment and education since the initial utilisation of returning military medics from Vietnam. The general trend now is an uptake by younger professionals with higher-level qualifications. Minority populations are well represented within the PA profession and there has been a particular emphasis historically on primary care and medically-underserved populations. Around 36% of PAs work in primary care, followed by surgical subspecialties (22%), internal medicine subspecialties (11%) and emergency medicine (10%). An extensive collection of evidence-based literature amassed over more than 40 years (and now accumulating in other OECD countries that have adapted the model) confirms that PAs deliver safe, high quality medical and surgical care. The US Physician Assistant profession is fully endorsed by the American Medical Association and all of the major medical and surgical colleges. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has been particularly supportive. Progressive rural physicians in the US were notable champions in the emergence of the profession, reflecting substantial rural medical workforce shortages at the time. Physician assistants continue to be a invaluable component of the rural health workforce. In addition, medical specialists in regional areas have found that PAs stabilise and extend specialist services by taking on routine assessment, aspects of pre- and postprocedural care and in providing follow-up and outreach that might otherwise take specialists away from complex cases and surgical procedures. In the US, Nurse Practitioners (NPs) have also had a significant impact on the delivery of health services to rural populations. Twenty-three per cent of all PAs and NPs work in rural areas, compared with only 13% of doctors. While there are contrasts, NPs and PAs in the US evolved around the same time, provide comparable clinical services and have similar numbers in their respective roles in the workforce. The differences with NPs are in background (nursing only), educational philosophy (grounded in the nursing profession's values, knowledge, theories and practice), gender (predominantly female) and in systems for regulating clinical practice (autonomous versus delegated clinical practice). For the most part, the two professions now have a collegial and complimentary relationship. International Spread of the PA Model Two independently-evaluated Physician Assistant pilots that were completed in South Australia and Queensland in 2010 found the model to have promise for Australia. The US-trained PAs were found to have no negative impact on junior doctor training opportunities and in fact augmented prospects and teaching in some cases. Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, October

5 A number of Physician Assistant trials have also been run in Canada and the UK, countries that have successfully incorporated similar PA prototypes to that which Australia is considering. Australia shares key features with Canada in regards to healthcare governance, an over-burdened public healthcare sectors and substantial rural population and geography. The College of Family Physicians Canada has officially endorsed the Canadian PA profession. Other developed nations applying or evaluating the PA model include the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and Taiwan. Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia. Variations of the PA role with a similar scope of practice exist in Russia, India, Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique, China, Malaysia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and other developing nations. Development of the Physician Assistant Role In Australia In addition to the completion of the Queensland and South Australian pilots projects, there have been other developments. For instance, one of the PAs from the Queensland Health pilot is providing clinical services at Mulungu Aboriginal Corporation Medical Centre in the Atherton Tablelands. Another PA from South Australia pilot continues to be employed in a similar capacity to her initial role at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Adelaide. James Cook University School of Medicine & Dentistry employs three US PAs on staff. The University of Queensland (UQ) Physician Assistant Program graduated the first cohort of students in June 2011 and some graduates have already secured employment. The second cohort will graduate next year. Largely due to inadequate funding, UQ has decided to close the program for now, but the Head of School, Medicine has stated that, if commitment to the development of a Physician Assistant workforce arises, the University will give serious consideration to re-activating the program. James Cook University commences intake into a Bachelor of Health Science (Physician Assistant) program in Several peak organisations have stated their support for a Physician Assistant model in Australia to strengthen the rural health workforce. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), in its submission to the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission in 2009, encouraged and supported task substitution and recommended the development of funding programs for Physician Assistants and other workforce substitution programs to help address rural and remote workforce mal-distribution. Recommendations from National Rural Health Conferences in 2009 and 2011 emphasised the need to speed the rate of development of new health professional roles (eg Physician Assistant, Nurse Practitioner and advanced allied health practitioners) to help meet rural and remote health workforce shortages and to improve care. With responsibility of guiding national policy development, Health Workforce Australia (HWA) has committed to, foster workforce innovation and reform exploring Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, October

6 opportunities to better utilise the skills and competencies of the current workforce, redesigning existing roles and multidisciplinary teams and developing new roles. With apparent vexation, HWA has stated that the pace of reform of health professional roles and service delivery models has been slower in Australia than in many other comparable OECD countries. New roles such as Nurse Practitioners, Physician Assistants, and lay health workers that are long established in other developed (and developing) countries have often faced barriers in Australia and continue to be the subject of debate, despite evidence of the effectiveness of these roles in achieving the same or improved patient outcomes. With ever-increasing demands on the Australian health care system related to increasing levels of chronic co-morbidity, ageing populations and an increasing range of technological interventions, health workforce and health service innovations are essential. Health workforce shortages demand innovative and flexible approaches to delivering health care services in order to assure access to quality, essential health care particularly for rural, remote and Indigenous Australian communities. Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, October

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